Ferolbink Farms in Tiverton, RI gap certified
Fax (401) 625-1467
On-farm photo credits: Carole Topalian for edible RHODY
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Tiverton, RI - On a clear day you can see forever—at least all the way down to the Sakonnet River—from Jason “Pete” Peckham’s spectacularly sited Ferolbink Farms in Tiverton. The vista changes according to the season: Spring brings a whisper of pale green foliage to the willows along the river, summer’s light is stronger and brighter, while in October there’s a touch of autumn color in the trees, and the water seems even more sparkling than usual.
The view may be serene but Peckham’s potato-growing operation is anything but—especially in the autumn.
“October is our most high-pressure month,” says Peckham, a wiry, mild-mannered 68-year-old with pale blue eyes, a shy grin and a battered red baseball cap. Here on this 275-acre potato farm - the state’s largest — this time of year means harvesting half the annual crop — 7 million pounds in all. It signals dawn-to-dusk activity six days a week, with 15 extra workers scurrying to fill outstanding orders, placing potatoes into storage and completing the harvest of Ferolbink’s additional 25 acres of Butternut squash.
The star of the harvest is undoubtedly the enormous mechanized harvester, which moves through the fields unearthing two rows of potatoes at a time, separating out the rocks from the spuds and eventually dumping the potatoes into huge piles, from where they are sorted, bagged and forklifted into trailers.
Every day in October, six or seven tractor-trailer loads, each containing 25 tons, of potatoes leave the farm. The very dry varieties — Marcy, Norwis, Atlantic and FL-1867 — are destined to become potato chips at the Frito-Lay factory in Killingly, Connecticut. The other six “table” potatoes — reds, russets, Yukon Golds, Rebas, Superiors and Green Mountains — are bound for the shelves of the Stop & Shop supermarket chain, Rhode Island’s Kids First program, which aims to use locally grown foods in the schools, plus a number of local restaurants.
Farmers are accustomed to hard work. The seasonal potato-growing cycle begins in early to mid-April, when Peckham plows and harrows the fields. He then cuts and sorts some 660,000 pounds of seed potatoes from northern Maine using a clattering, conveyor-belt machine in one of the farm’s out-buildings. Next, he maneuvers an enormous computerized John Deere planter, which fertilizes the sandy, loamy soil, drops in the seeders and covers them, four rows at a time. Over the next few weeks, he cultivates the fields three times, sprays weekly with herbicide and fungicide—to counteract weeds and the local damp, foggy conditions—and separates out the nonviable plants from the healthy ones. In late May, he plants his Butternut squash.
The pace quickens during the summer, when harvesting of some of the early varieties begins in late July and continues in staggered intervals until mid-November. Employment peaks in September, when Peckham hires some 25 migrant workers to begin the labor-intensive harvesting of Butternut squash.
There are always weather- and finance-related worries: hurricanes, droughts, plant diseases, rising fuel costs and the weakening dollar. “Luckily all my accounts are located within an hour from here,” says Peckham, “eliminating some of the costs of long-distance trucking.”
“I’m not a believer in global warming,” Peckham says, although he acknowledges seasonal climate change. “Autumns seem to be getting longer—we’re mowing the grass until Christmas, while as a kid there was ice and snow in November.” Years back, planting took place in mid-March; today it starts in mid-April.
Peckham’s family has been in the Little Compton area for five generations. His parents, Ferol and Bernard “Bink” Peckham—thus the name Ferolbink Farms—bought the property in 1944, having moved from just two miles away. Peckham’s nickname, Pete, incidentally, was bestowed on him by his three older sisters, who insisted that their baby brother be called Peter, although his parents had already named him Jason.
The major change in local agriculture over the years has been a switch from dairy farming to vegetable farming, according to Peckham. “Mechanization became very important, too.” A sign of the times, more farmers are now selling out to developers, reducing the amount of open space in Rhode Island. Peckham is in the process of selling his division rights to the state, a move that will prevent future development of his land.
Ferolbink Farms is still very much a family affair. Peckham’s son, Jason, an organic grower down the road, pitches in regularly. “What do I think about the organic thing?” poses Peckham. “Well, I can’t do both. This area is hard for organic farming because of weather and weed problems.”
One of his daughters runs the seasonal bed and breakfast on the property, a beautiful rambling Victorian shingled house surrounded by shade trees. Another daughter does the books, while a third daughter is married to the chef at the Back Eddy restaurant in nearby Westport, Massachusetts, a major account. His wife Deanna, according to Peckham, is “a typical farmer’s wife.”
Different potato varieties all have unique flavor and texture characteristics. Peckham’s personal favorites include Yukon Golds and Green Mountains, an old variety that’s dry, fluffy and has a heavy skin. “It’s got an excellent flavor. I sell them to some of the Portuguese people in the area who use it in soups and with chourico.” Norwis, originally bred for Frito-Lay, is excellent mashed with garlic, while reds make a good potato salad. Reba, a round white all-purpose potato, is sold in Stop & Shop under the name “Rhode Island potatoes.”
As for storage, potatoes will keep for “quite a few” months, ideally at 45 degrees Fahrenheit, in a dark place with high humidity. The refrigerator is too cold for potatoes, according to Peckham. The spuds will become sweet-tasting. If the spuds sprout, they are in too warm a place, although the sprouts can simply be removed and the potatoes cooked and eaten.
Potatoes have a bright future, according to Peckham. “They’ll always be around,” he says. “People should eat more of them. They are so cheap and so healthy.” Not to mention delicious.
Photo credits: Carole Topalian